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Beautiful, Bold, Psychedelic: Aiwan Obinyan’s Wax Print

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Right when Wax Print, a documentary about a form of wax-resist dyeing closely associated with the fulgent fabric of Africa and the African diaspora, is about to wrap up, its director Aiwan Obinyan and its producer Natuley Smalle slow their movie down to reflect on their visit to Elmina Castle, a major stop along the Atlantic slave trade. Waves crash behind the filmmakers as they unpack their response in pretty much real time, right to the camera.

“The most overwhelming sadness,” Obinyan, who narrates Wax Print and often appears on-camera as a guide, says. “Like, the deepest sadness.”

“I was expecting to be angry and result in my usual ranting about the criminality of slavery,” Smalle says. “But I just felt heavy. It just felt heavy. Dense with sadness.”

Wax Print’s conversational, informational approach (its tagline, “1 fabric, 4 continents, 200 years of history,” is earned) dissolves here for a history lesson, exploration of appropriation and exploitation, and personal aside all at once—a surprising denouement for what is essentially an educational movie about how a kind of fabric came to be.

Aiwan Obinyan

The origins of wax print, you’ll learn, go back to Batik from Java, Indonesia, an adjustment to a centuries-old technique which used wax on fabric to resist dyeing certain parts, creating more complex patterns. Batik was then mass-produced and, over time, sold along Africa’s west coast where it became incredibly popular and remixed and reimagined into something, as Obinyan says, “beautiful, bold with a touch of the psychedelic.”

Obinyan ostensibly frames Wax Print around asking the question, “Is wax print African?” It’s a question that is both impossible to answer and has a pretty obvious answer: Yes. You have likely seen wax print and, just as likely, somebody ripping off its style. Stella McCartney was called out for stealing a design in 2018 and in Wax Print, there is an anecdote about Pier One Imports ordering legit wax prints only to take them to China to make knock-offs. And it’s there, when people that aren’t African are left out of the conversation about this arguably African thing, that the question about wax print’s African-ness especially matters. 

Wax print is African because the fabric, like so many things, is African by virtue of what Africans (putting the question of “inventing” to the side) have done with it and the fact that its context and specific in-demand-ness began once it became known as being African. And arguments that it is not African should be familiar to anyone who has gotten stuck in a debate about say, musical appropriation (“Where on the scale of icky to awful do the bloggy, mostly white DJs cribbing so many sounds from Black Baltimore club music fall?”). The domination and pilfering that is at the heart of European and Amerikkkan empire is so vast and it is hard to make heads or tails of just about anything when it comes to who “created” something—club music, wax prints, whatever—because the exploiters will always find a rhetorical way out and justify the theft and, better yet, tell you it wasn’t theft at all.

At a factory mass-producing wax print designs, Obinyan is amused: “Because this process is now very perfect, they have to put the imperfection back into a perfect thing because the imperfection is part of the style, so it’s almost like a perfect imperfection,” she says.

For most of its running time, Wax Print lets a lot of the rage simmer, providing context instead—visits with those making wax prints and an expansive history lesson—and floating a low-key argument for diasporic connection. We go to Afropunk where debates about wax print and African style are happening on the fly in between bands. Later, we meet Obinyan’s grandmother, Elizabeth Oboh, who taught women in Nigeria to sew and make clothes, and Obinyan’s uncle, Dr. Evaristus Obinyan, now living in Atlanta, who laughs it up now that two generations of his family are all caught up in the complicated world of clothing and design. 

You see how Elmina Castle connects even before the filmmakers arrive. To discuss wax print is to discuss exploitation and theft and profit, and to do that means discussing slavery. It was enslaved Africans who would, Obinyan explains, “pick the cotton that would form the foundation of the early imitation Batiks and wax prints.” You understand that when she says it but it’s when Obinyan and Smalle stand there, with the weight of knowing so many people once passed through there on their way to being enslaved, that you finally, really feel it.

**********

Wax Print screens at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African-American History & Culture on Sunday, February 9 at 2 p.m. Before and during the screening, there will be a pop-up shop and live kente cloth weaving demonstration and following the screening, a discussion featuring owners of African fabric store AFROTHREADS Evonne and Erika Opoku, Master Kente Weaver Kwasi Asare, and Meredith Hurston.

MOVIE LISTINGS

THE CHARLES THEATRE, 1711 NORTH CHARLES STREET, (410) 727-3464, THECHARLES.COM

63 Up (Michael Apted, UK, 2019). Fri-Thurs: 12:45

2020 Oscar Shorts Animated. Fri-Sat: 1:00, 4:55, 9:30; Sun-Mon: 1:00, 4:55; Tues-Thurs: 1:00, 4:55, 9:30

2020 Oscar Shorts Live Action. Fri-Thurs: 2:50, 7:00

JoJo Rabbit (Taika Waititi, US, 2019). Fri: 1:00, 4:00, 7:00, 9:30; Sat: 1:15, 4:00, 7:00, 9:30; Sun-Mon: 1:00, 4:00, 7:00; Tues-Thurs: 1:00, 4:00, 7:00, 9:30

Just Mercy (Destin Daniel Cretton, US, 2019). Fri-Sat: 4:45, 8:00; Sun-Mon: 4:45; Tues-Thurs: 4:45, 8:00

Little Women (Greta Gerwig, US, 2019). Fri-Sat: 12:55, 3:40, 6:45, 9:30; Sun-Mon: 12:55, 3:40, 6:45; Tues-Wed: 12:55, 3:40, 6:45, 9:30; Thurs: 12:55, 3:40, 9:30

Parasite (Bong Joon-ho, South Korea, 2019). Fri-Sat: 12:50, 3:45, 6:40, 9:30; Sun: 12:50, 3:45, 6:40; Mon: 12:50, 3:45; Tues-Wed: 12:50, 3:45, 6:40, 9:30; Thurs: 12:50, 3:45, 6:40

Revival: Winter Light (Ingmar Bergman, Sweden, 1963) Sat: 11:30 a.m.; Mon: 7:00; Thurs: 9:00

ENOCH PRATT FREE LIBRARY

Do The Right Thing (Spike Lee, US, 1989). Wed: 5:30, Pennsylvania Avenue Branch

Isn’t It Romantic (Todd Strauss-Schulson, US, 2019). Thurs: 5:30, Waverly Branch

Once Upon a Time In Hollywood (Quentin Tarantino, US, 2019). Sat: 1:30, Central Library

Semper Fi (Henry Alex Rubin, US, 2019). Mon: 5:00, Pennsylvania Avenue Branch

Shaun The Sheep Movie (Mark Burton & Richard Starzak, UK, 2015). Sat: 10:30 a.m., Roland Park Branch

Sherlock Jr. (Buster Keaton, US, 1924). Wed: 3:00, Hamilton Branch

THE PARKWAY THEATRE, 5 WEST NORTH AVENUE, (410) 752-8083, MDFILMFEST.COM

The Parkway is holding a series of feedback screenings this month. Go here for more information.

1917 (Sam Mendes, US, 2019). Fri-Sat: 12:45, 4:15, 6:45, 9:30; Sun: 12:45, 4:00, 6:45; Mon-Wed: 6:45, 9:30; Thurs: 9:30

2019 African Film Festival Shorts. Tues: 7:00 (free)

2020 Oscar Documentary Shorts Program 1. Fri-Sat: 1:30, 7:00; Sun: 4:15; Mon: 7:30; Tues-Thurs: 7:00

2020 Oscar Documentary Shorts Program 2. Fri-Sat: 4:00, 9:00; Sun: 7:00; Mon: 9:30; Tues-Thurs: 9:00

Clemency (Chinonye Chukwu, US, 2019). Fri: 7:00; Sat: 3:45; Sun: 1:00; Mon: 9:30; Wed: 9:30; Thurs: 7:00

The Edge Of Democracy (Petra Costa, Brazil, 2019). Fri: 1:15; Sat: 9:15; Mon: 6:45; Thurs: 6:45

Fantastic Fungi (Louie Schwartzberg, US, 2019). Fri: 4:30, 9:30; Sat: 1:00, 7:15; Sun: 4:30, 7:15; Tues: 9:30; Wed: 7:15; Thurs: 9:30

Oscars Watch Party. Sun: 8:00 (free)

THE SENATOR THEATRE, 5904 YORK ROAD, (410) 323-4424, SENATORTHEATRE.COM

1917 (Sam Mendes, US, 2019). Fri-Sat: 12:50, 3:50, 6:50, 9:45; Sun: 9:45 a.m., 12:50, 3:50, 6:50; Mon: 12:50, 3:50, 6:50; Tues-Wed: 12:50, 3:50, 6:50, 9:45; Thurs: 12:50, 3:50, 8:35

Birds Of Prey (Cathy Yan, US, 2020). Fri-Sat: 1:00, 4:00, 7:00, 9:45; Sun: 9:50 a.m., 1:00, 4:00, 7:00; Mon: 1:00, 4:00, 7:00; Tues-Wed: 1:00, 4:00, 7:00, 9:45; Thurs: 1:00, 4:00, 8:30

Color Out Of Space (Richard Stanley, US, 2020). Fri-Sat: 9:35; Sun: 9:45 a.m.; Mon: 6:40; Tues-Wed: 9:35

Jay and Silent Bob Reboot (Kevin Smith, US, 2019). Thurs: 8:00

Knives Out (Rian Johnson, US, 2019). Fri-Sat: 12:40, 3:40, 6:45, 9:35; Sun-Mon: 12:40, 3:40, 6:45; Tues: 12:40, 3:40, 6:45, 9:35; Wed: 12:40, 3:40, 6:45; Thurs: 12:40, 3:40

Revival: Red Shoes (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, UK, 1948). Sun: 10:00 a.m.; Mon: 1:00

Revival: Sleepless In Seattle (Nora Ephron, US, 1993). Wed: 7:30

Uncut Gems (Benny & Josh Safdie, US, 2019). Fri-Sun: 12:35, 3:35, 6:40; Mon: 3:35; Tues: 12:35, 3:35, 6:40; Wed: 12:35, 3:35; Thurs: 12:35

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